Last December, we needed a couples getaway. Away from family issues, work and even our pets. The first thing that came to our mind was the Florida Keys. It was time for a road trip and the ultimate driving adventure to the Florida Keys.
A Florida Keys road trip makes the perfect winter getaway. In the winter, Key West is one of the warmest destinations in the US. We had been to the Keys on a cruise a few years back, but we have always wanted to drive the famous Overseas Highway. With keys in hand to our new pickup truck, it seemed the right time for a road trip to Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon and Key West. We took I-95 South to Fort Lauderdale and then the traffic started getting crazy. Taking 595 to Florida's Turnpike proved to be a good choice. It is a toll route but it was worth it to avoid traffic accidents. We drove past the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood, otherwise known as the "guitar hotel". It was cool to see Miami in the distance. Florida's Turnpike took us to Ronald Reagan Turnpike which becomes Route 1. We stopped for fuel at the Miami-Dade County Rest Area, about 20 minutes before Homestead, FL.
First Stop: Key Largo
Our first stop was Key Largo. We stayed at the Hampton Inn Key Largo. It has a manmade beach fronting Florida Bay and is frequently visited by manatees. The shallow water at the hotel beach is murky (like most Florida Keys beaches) but warm. People were renting kayaks while we were there which are available right at the hotel. We saw quite a few very large iguanas on the property as well as birds. None of them are afraid to approach you for food! We really enjoyed this Key Largo hotel that offered clean rooms and breakfast. It has a tiki bar and they gave us a complimentary cocktail! The hotel is just down the road from John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, where you can set out on a snorkeling trip to see some of the most beautiful reefs in the Florida Keys. As an entry point to the Florida Keys, this hotel did not disappoint.
The sea in Key Largo is nice, but the really blue Florida Keys water starts as you drive further down south towards Islamorada. We enjoyed gazing out at the bay while we were having pizza for dinner at Jimmy Johnson's Big Chill restaurant. There was live music as the sun went down: we were truly chilling. The sunsets are great in the Florida Keys no matter where you are! The next morning, on the way to Islamorada, we stopped at the Blonde Giraffe for the "best Key Lime Pie in Florida". You can relax in their Serenity Garden while having the pie and a cool drink (or a coffee). Pie is good any time of day. Read more about Key Largo here.
Next Stop: Islamorada
Islamorada is known for its eclectic shopping. Driving through we noticed the Rain Barrel Village and had to stop. It is a funky collection of local shops and art dealers surrounded by shady gardens. There is a famous lobster statue out front. When you go into the building it leads to more shops in a garden behind. We wandered around to look for souvenirs and Boho finds. There is a place for buying food including Cuban coffee and a bar. Be aware this is not an ideal rest stop. There was only a port-a-potty to use and no real bathrooms. So don't drink too many beveridges if you stop here!
We did not stay overnight in Islamorada but there are resorts that have good reviews:
For lunch we ate at Marker 88 and enjoyed an Islamorada fish sandwich and Onion Encrusted Mahi Mahi. You can dine outdoors and watch the sunset (if you have dinner). Key Lime Pie and local draft beer are delicious here. Boating? You can dock and dine. A Keys tradition since 1967, Marker 88 offers waterfront dining that actually is on the beach. This restaurant is located on an unspoiled, natural Florida Keys beach, although you cannot swim here. Still you can get an idea of what a Florida Keys beach is like: it's a little murky in places with some natural grass and rocks in it. Anne's Beach is about 20 minutes south of Islamorada and does have swimming. However, it is a typical Keys beach: small, shallow with lots of grass. It is a small, rustic beach. Bonus - it has a restroom!
We stopped for Dinner at The Green Turtle Inn. This restaurant has a beautiful atmosphere with high ceilings. They have a sports bar area and an outdoor eating space, although not directly on the water. This historic venue has been an Islamorada landmark since 1947. The local Yellowtail Snapper blackened and quinoa rice with vegetables was excellent. It has a 2022 Couples Choice Award from Wedding Wire because Florida weddings are their specialty.
Third Stop: Marathon
Sombrero Beach in Marathon was the best stop for us in the Florida Keys. Although the water was grassy, it was a really stunning place. The water was warm in December and it wasn't too crowded. The restroom facilities were great and street parking was free. Turn on to Sombrero Beach Road, drive past the high school and go right to the end for a sweet day on the shoreline.
That night we stayed at Tranquility Bay which has it's own beach area (not as nice as Sombrero Beach in our opinion). The grounds and hotel are covered with stunning tropical trees and flowers. However, no breakfast is included here (not even coffee in the lobby at that time). Tranquility Bay has all kinds of accommodations including beach townhouses which are great for families. We could not dine at the hotel due to the Florida vacation crowd, and ended up a few blocks down the road.
Dinner at the Lighthouse Grill at Faro Blanco Resort and marina was very relaxing. Burgers were delicious and food came quickly at the bar. Wait times at other restaurants were very long so this worked out well. With a seaside atmosphere by the lighthouse and marina, this outdoor dining location was perfect. Great service by the bartender: we would go back to eat and to stay at this hotel. Read more about Sombrero Beach here.
Finally: Key West
Our final destination of Key West was a little cool and windy in December. Light jackets were needed on the island. It is usually very warm in Key West in December. As we entered the Old Town, we wound through the tight lanes and busy traffic in our pickup truck. We were relieved to arrive at the Silver Palms Hotel and take advantage of their free parking spots. It was tight but we fit! We think this is one of the best places to stay in Key West. The hotel is clean, modern and close to Duval Street where all the action is.
You can keep your car in the hotel parking lot and take the free Key West Duval Loop Bus. It visits all the shops, bars and restaurants you associate with this tropical city including South Beach. Why fight traffic when you can relax? Read more about our visit to Key West here, including information on Smathers Beach which was another of our favorites. Just remember, the Florida Keys is best for snorkeling and boating. If you want a white sandy beach with crystal clear water then the Florida Keys may be disappointing. Try Siesta Key Beach or Sand Key Beach instead.
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Driving back home was enjoyable but we didn't want our Florida Keys road trip to end. The Overseas Highway is just so fun with salty air and mile markers. In Key Largo, we made one stop at the Seaside Eatery food truck for wraps. It had a uniquely island vibe and was delicious. After that we didn't stop, except at rest areas, and drove the entire way back. It took us about 6.5 hours, but that's how we roll. We just keep on trucking!
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Susan and Bruno are travel bloggers. We write about Florida beaches on every coast. Our opinions only.